Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Foodie update: Jacques Génin, Zen Zoo, La Petite Rose, Le Réfectoire

Been a bit slack with the foodie updates of late so have decided to lump them altogether which is a couple of weeks worth of eating! :)
Jacques Génin is a very well-regarded chocolatier here in Paris and up until recently, one had to make an appointment to buy his chocolates! This all changed at the end of 2008 when he finally decided to open a chocolaterie-salon du the in the 3rd. Having read an interview with him in "A Nous Paris" (freebie weekly magazine, published every Tuesday and found in metro stations) a few weeks ago, my friend and I decided to go and check out said chocolate shop. We were shocked to find our final destination was in the form of a chic, Zen-like boutique, a sharp contrast to the surrounding naff shops selling shiny suits and dodgy footwear.
After much pondering, we each plumped for a 9-piece chocolate box each (well, 2 boxes for me cos one was a present for my bro and Jools); I went the whole hog and splashed out on an additional bag of Jacques' famous mango and passion fruit caramels. The guy who served us was really nice and noticed that I was an aspiring pastry chef when I put down my recipe book to pay - he also generously gave us each a cardomom chocolate to try which was lovely. We were even privileged enough to see the great chocolate master himself.... serving tea and taking payments from customers, incredible!? All the chocs tasted lovely with more exotic flavours than  Jean-Paul Hévin.....as for the caramels, well worth forking out 18 yoyos for the bag of 15 beauties! :)

This weekend involved a couple of yummy lunches: the first was a re-visit to Zen Zoo on Saturday afternoon for a lovely lunch of jasmine-smoked chicken (with various sides) and a lychee and raspberry pannacotta (my friend went healthy and had a lovely steaming hot pot of all things tofu!)

The second was after a visit to the market at Bastille (large but nowhere near as nice as President Wilson) to a lovely little place called Le Réfectoire. The theme of this eatery is the French school dining room so imagine lots of rickety wooden tables and chairs, blackboards posting specials of the day, kiddies pictures on the walls plus a 1970s style clock which my friend was quite fond of!  Le Réfectoire offers a Sunday brunch for 20 yoyos which looked pretty good (gonna try that next time!) but we went for a couple of gargatuan mains including my smoked salmon and calamari salad. I could barely finish the beast which meant no room for a very tempting-sounding mango charlotte, a real bummer as we were after making charlottes this week :(

The patisserie of choice this weekend was La Petite Rose, a salon du the near Villiers metro which is owned by a Japanese lady. The shop is lovely and very cute, I plumped for a chocolate and raspberry concoction which looked nice but sadly, I don't have anything interesting to write about it apart from the fact that it was a giant lump of chocolate mousse. Am getting mucho fussy as the weeks go by when it comes to all thing pastry, oh dear! ;)

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Les autre choses: le vin et la farine

I think I mentioned previously that we have a range of other classes to attend besides patisserie. One of these is oenology or the study of wine. Our classes haven't exactly been regular, think we're averaging 1 class per month (due to have 6 in total) and we had our 2nd class earlier this week. Our teacher, Agnès is brilliant and a true expert of the field - I enjoyed the class so much that I managed to take 9 pages of notes! Agnès continued from last time with a general background to wine including explaining different types of wine (AOC, vin de pays, vin de table), how to read a wine label, what info can we expect to see on a wine bottle and a quick overview of the wine regions of France. Then it was off to the lab to have our first wine-tasting session - it was nothing fancy but a real eye-opener for me; we tasted 2 dry white wines, one Sauvignon Blanc and one Chardonnay. It was amazing how different these 2 grape varieties can be?! Great class and a shame that its not a larger part of our curriculum.

We ended this week with a class trip to a flour mill called Moulins Bourgeois in a village called Verdelot which is around 1 and a half hours drive east of Paris. It was pretty interesting as we were given a tour of the mill, which included an explanation of how the wheat which is brought to the mill is then transformed into flour, all in French of course! I didn't understand everything but prolly got maybe 80% of it. We were also given a quick presentation by a lady who ran the lab in the mill which analyses the quality of the flour (amount of gluten, what flour type, elasticity and extensibility of flour, humidity, etc) being produced. The trip ended with a visit to the old mill which is a few minutes drive from the "new" mill and is currently being renovated. It dates back to the 1900s and even has a 25km diameter water wheel which was very impressive. The battery on my camera died at the end of the trip so I didn't have the chance to take many pics in the old mill - it was a little chilling seeing some old flour sacks there which had the stamps of the 3rd Reich on them, relics from WW2.

It was a long day and we finally arrived back in Paris around half 4 in the afternoon. I had half contemplated skipping this trip cos Pa Chan was in town for an overnight trip, but in the end, I didn't which meant only managing to squeeze dinner with him.  We were invited to go to China Town Belleville, the largest Asian restaurant in Belleville and were treated to a sumptuous and generous dinner by our host, the owner of the restaurant who is originally from Cambodia. He was looking pretty sprightly for a 70-something and it was also very interesting to hear his story; arriving in Paris as a refugee with nothing but the clothes on his back, juggling multiple jobs to make ends meet and finally saving enough money and being able to open his own business. 1st generation Asian migrants work usually extremely hard in their adopted countries (mostly in the restaurant business) in order to provide a better life for their children, who are generally discouraged from entering the same profession for fear of a harsh life which they may not be able to handle. Yet, when this older generation contemplate retirement, deep down, I think they would really like for their own children to carry on their business - a curious contradiction....I'm not sure how Pa Chan feels about the subject but I think he is happy that I am finally doing something that I am passionate about and makes me happy, none of which would've possible without his or Ma Chan's support :)      

Thursday, 26 March 2009

ESCF - Week 7

This week has been a bit of a blur but it definitely involved making a lot of "biscuit à la cuiller", literally "spoon biscuit". I think historically, the biscuit may have been used as a spoon but unfortunately, its not a particularly helpful description. Biscuit à la cuiller is essentially like a sponge biscuit and tastes a bit like soft lady fingers/boudoir fingers (I just remember eating a brand called Bambini back when I was a "yoot" ;)), its the type of biscuit used for making tira misù. Our first batch didn't turn out great cos I messed up the folding of the flour and according to chef, our piping looked like "pis", aka. piss....nice. Luckily, I got the hang of folding 2nd time around and the next batch were a vast improvement. Over the last few days, our biscuit à la cuiller has been transformed into numerous creations including Moka (coffee cake), roulade griottines (vanilla bavarois studded with griottine cherries and covered with a layer of raspberry-filled swiss roll slices), charlotte café (coffee flavoured charlotte) and charlotte chocolat (yep, you guessed it! chocolate flavoured charlotte). All the cakes made this week had more of an emphasis on decorating and assembling, some of which turned out OK but I also managed to make a dog's dinner of others - must make note to self to squish even more biscuit à la cuillert than I can imagine possible for my roulade and charlotte café to prevent my bavarois squishing out through the cracks, not attractive!! We had a communal tasting session this afternoon of all the cakes we had made - I think my favourite was probably the roulade griottines but ideally, without the griottines, which tasted like death by kirsch!

The other main event of the week was restaurant service. Everyone was rotated to a different task and I was supposed to be on "mise en place" (preparation) making genoise sponge. Things changed a little when I got to lab and instead, I was making mignardises (bite-sized desserts served at the end of the meal) of passion fruit and apricot jellies, as well as chocolate caramels. Both turned out pretty well and we got a nice compliment from chef about the consistency of our chocolate caramels. They tasted pretty good as well, judging by the "inhalation" of our extra pieces! Again, everything went pretty smoothly - since I was responsible for the "plonge" (dirty dishes) this week, I managed to take a quick peek on the way to the "plongeurs" at the Anglo Cuisine kitchen, which looked pretty impressive! Its a shame that we don't have more joint activities as I would love to find out a bit more about what they are up to, oh wellos :( 

We ended the week with prepping some pastillage which we will decorate/paint next week and also receiving some feedback from the almond roses we made last week (I had requested that we get more feedback on our work when we had an "evaluation" chat last week). My roses turned out pretty good (chef's words were "there is very little wrong with them", not exactly pat-on-the-back stuff but I'll take it...) which was encouraging. Its always hard not to feel a little down when things don't turn out great in lab but I can take heart from my chocolate macarons and almond roses from last week that practice really does make perfect. 

Chef also mentioned our "stages" for the first time today, the 3-6 month internship we will do post-formal training. Bar a few exceptions, most of us would like to work in a patisserie of some sort, am hoping that I get a nice placement. Chef had mentioned last week that he was having problems securing places because of "la crise" - looks like the credit crunch is even biting the world of pastry so fingers and toes crossed! :)

Monday, 23 March 2009

Thank Crunchie, its Friday

I was very relieved to reach Friday this week past. Despite the early start, it was lovely to be able to spend 6 hours in the calmness of the boulangerie lab. We switched sides with the other class in lab who were practicing using the other oven for their exams this coming summer. As usual, there was a buzz of activity of everyone making and shaping baguettes. In addition, our group made some walnut, raisin and prune bread (sadly, a little overbaked due to an over-hot oven), some bread wreaths and "flammekueche"/"tarte flambée", traditionally a savoury pastry from Alsace which is covered with cheese, lardons and onions (ours included some sundried tomatoes and coriander!). The flammekueche proved to be hugely popular with the rest of our class, not to mention the other class in lab who were quick to rush over and exchange some of their bread (had been hoping for some of their "mignon" hedgehog-shaped pain au lait but no such luck!) for some slices! Boulangerie continues to be one of my favourite classes and it can be attributed to having a brilliant chef to learn from who teaches us the fundamentals of breadmaking, encourages us to try something different each lesson and somehow manages to achieve everything in a very laid-back manner, total mustard! :)

Was very excited about heading back to London this weekend and be able to meet up with loved ones, family and friends. I managed to get my Asian food fix by having Chinese for dinner on Friday at Plum Valley (OK for dim sum but avoid dinner at all costs!). I then met my friend ("la chilanga") for lunch on Saturday and we plumped for Malaysian at Rasa Sayang (very nice, will be going back). Finally, JD and I had a celebratory post-6 Nations Thai dinner at the Old Park Horse including some very spicy pad kee mao, yummy!

As usual, the weekend was too short and before I knew it, it was back on the Eurostar heading back across the Manche. The break was lovely, it has also helped me put the evaluation which I received on Thursday into perspective so I can now move on and just continue to keep trying my best :)

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Congratulations Ireland - GRAND SLAM CHAMPIONS!!!

"Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad." (BOD / Rala)

.....or a dessert for that matter, which is what happened to us at dinner on Friday at Plum Valley in Chinatown. Not impressed, plus portions were miserly!

Anyhoo, back to the important news, after 61 years of waiting, Ireland have finally won the Grand Slam at the 6 Nations!! As usual, it was an excruciating 80 minutes to sit through, not to mention having to endure the last minute Welsh penalty. Luckily, they missed (hard luck to Stephen Jones) and the memories of the near miss in 2003 were finally erased. Despite not being a hardcore rugger hugger, am happy for the team and for the country that they finally won! :)

Macarons part deux

I had another opportunity to try making chocolate macarons at the end of the week. This time, I was to use a recipe tweaked by chef but using the "cooked sugar" method (ie. the method used by everyone else at the beginning of the week) - my friend generously allowed me to try this method (makasih, Fen!) while she tackled another tweaked recipe but using the "raw" method. The good news was that my new batch looked picture perfect (smooth and complete with "feet") and tasted pretty good compared to the ones I had made at the beginning of the week, the only conundrum left to solve now is how to get them to the right colour of chocolate brown. My friend didn't have as much luck with hers, the same cracked results as mine the other day, I blame the oven!

We finished off in lab with practicing making some more almond roses (slowly getting better at these, think I have finally mastered the art of making petals and the power of the back of a spoon!). Chef also gave us a demonstration of pulled sugar which was very impressive - sugar is heated to c.160 degrees and then transferred onto a silpat mat to cool. Once the right temperature is reached, chef then "pulled" the sugar some 20-25 times and the molten lump changed consistency and texture right before our eyes! At this point, the lump of sugar looks like a glossy piece of faux smoked salmon - it is left on a specially-heated plate for a while and afterwards, chef then gradually moulded an exquisite-looking rose from the sugar, amazing!   

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Petits fours

As well as making macarons this week, we also tried our hand at "petits fours" (small ovens) - little bit-sized pastries/biscuits that are generally served with coffee at the end of a meal. After the trials and tribulations of chocolate macarons, I was assigned to making "sablés à la poche" - little shell-shaped biscuits which are then sandwiched with some praline cream. Piping the little suckers was a feat in itself, imagine trying to pipe hard cement through a piping bag and you get the idea! The final product looked OK, did it taste good? Mmm.....not really, I was expecting a melt-in-the-mouth buttery shortbread but no such luck, just a bland, dry cookie (no wondered they named it after the French word for "sand") and sadly, I still haven't developed a taste for praline paste.

I also made some canelés bordelais - little cakes from Bordeaux that resemble baked custard with a very distinctive shape. The first time I had these were from a stall from Borough Market and I really liked them. Having tasted some now in Paris, I still prefer the ones back home - maybe its my aversion to excessive alcohol (in this case, more rum!) in pastries, oh wellos.

The rest of the class all made different varieties and by the end of yesterday, our lab was a cornucopia of petits fours, which was briefly flooded by a rainbow of macaroons :)

Tuesday, 17 March 2009


This week has not got off to a good start. We've just finished making macarons (macaroons, those little bundles of joy that have been perfected by the likes of Ladurée and Pierre Hermé) but it was not without much frustration in lab. As usual, chef gave us a demonstration on how to make macarons - there are several methods and he told us that we were to use the "cooked sugar" method. Afterwards, we were all each assigned a flavour to make, I picked chocolate. I was then given the recipe and realised that it did not use the method we had just watched. No worries, chef just told me to follow the recipe. The first problem arose when I didn't have enough egg whites (we had ran out of the pre-bottled sterilised stuff) for the chocolate recipe, when I queried chef about this, he looked at me and said "Make it!". I made the assumption that I was to go ahead with the reduced egg whites - it all started to look a little pear-shaped when my mixture was mucho stiff - after another chat with chef, he then said that he wanted me to use more eggs for extra egg whites, call me a numpty but saying "Make it" hardly conveys this?? Lost in translation in full swing. Rather than whisk some more whites, I was told to just mix it in and then started piping my shells. Half-way through piping, I was told to stop and start again - bollocks. Started again and used the right amount of egg whites, piped shells and they got baked. Chef didn't think they were enough in one recipe so had to make yet another batch - more bollocks. When my shells finally came out of the oven, they were far from the smooth little discs that everyone else had produced, mine looked like "OAP's in need of botox" macaroons - not exactly encouraging stuff when you're in the middle of making a third batch. All I got in response from chef was "I think there is something wrong with the recipe"...... did I get a remedy? Can pigs fly? - shite. Day 2 and it was onto piping the filling. 3 trays of macaroons later and I get to use 40% of my output as the remaining 60% were all cracked on the surface, hardly an impressive yield. As if things couldn't get any worse, first my ganache wasn't soft enough (easy enough to fix with a quick nook in the microwave) and then the "cherry on top" moment:

Chef: ...sont chiant. (rough translation - they look shit)

Exactly what I wanted to hear first thing this morning.

In general, all the macaroons made by the class looked pretty good, mine tasted OK but I will definitely not be choosing chocolate next time around. Its been a demoralising couple of days but I've knuckled down and just tried to get on with it, not been easy at times though. "What doesn't kill you will make you stronger" - I never used to believe this but I do now :)